Republican lawmakers reacted incredulously Tuesday, after Internal Revenue Service personnel informed them that some email records from six IRS employees central to a congressional investigation are unavailable.
The reason? All six of their computers crashed, making their email data unrecoverable.
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In a joint statement, Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), the Ways and Means Committee Chairman, and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany Jr. (R-LA) made it clear that they do not accept the agency’s explanation at face value.
“Plot lines in Hollywood are more believable than what we are getting from this White House and the IRS,” the lawmakers said.
The revelation brings to seven the number of computer crashes that have made emails unavailable to investigators looking into allegations that the agency targeted politically active applicants for non-profit status for extra scrutiny. The IRS last week informed Congress that the computer belonging to Lois Lerner, the former director of the agency’s Exempt Organizations Division, had failed resulting in lost data.
Camp and Boustany said that IRS personnel admitted that they have known for several months about the lost data. But a House Ways and Means Committee spokesperson confirmed Tuesday that committee staff who have spent a year investigating the alleged targeting of political groups seeking non-profit status were only informed of the six additional computer crashes on Monday.
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To be clear, the assertion by the IRS is not that every email ever sent by the seven employees in question has been lost. In the Lerner case, for instance, the unrecoverable data is limited to emails sent between 2009 and 2011. And the agency has been able to retrieve thousands of her emails from that time period by locating them on other employees’ computers. It has apparently done the same with regard to the emails of the additional six employees identified this week.
The largest gap in the record is in emails exchanged between the IRS workers and non-IRS employees. But that has only inflamed House Republicans further.
Among the IRS officials whose data was reportedly lost was Nikole Flax, chief of staff to Lerner's boss, then-deputy commissioner Steven Miller. Republicans have long claimed that the IRS was directed by the White House to specifically target organizations affiliated with the right-wing Tea Party movement in the run-up to the 2012 elections. The fact that Flax was a frequent visitor to the White House and the nearby Eisenhower Executive Office Building had Camp and Boustany all but asserting the existence of a conspiracy.
“It looks like the American people were lied to and the IRS tried to cover-up the fact it conveniently lost key documents in this investigation,” the lawmakers said. “The White House promised full cooperation, [IRS Commissioner John A. Koskinen] promised full access to Lois Lerner emails and now the Agency claims it cannot produce those materials and they’ve known for months they couldn’t do this.”
Related: House GOP Demands Answers from Obama on Lerner Emails
On Monday, Camp’s committee sent requests to the White House, the Treasury Department, the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Election Commission, and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration asking for any emails to and from Lerner that they have in their computer systems.
The committee also announced that Koskinen would testify before the ways and Means Committee in a June 20 hearing.
Apart from the fact that the missing emails are hampering a congressional investigation, the admissions by the IRS have created another potential scandal: the agency’s approach to records preservation.
The fact that a single computer crash could effectively eliminate emails that ought to be preserved as part of the federal record has, to put it mildly, surprised information technology experts up to and including the National Archives and Records Administration. On Monday, NARA told The Fiscal Times that it was “concerned” about the agency’s compliance with federal data preservation requirements and that its Chief Records Officer was looking into the problem.
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According to documents provided by the IRS, during the time period Congress is investigating, the agency only saved emails for six months before it recycled backup tapes, effectively destroying older material. Additionally, the IRS reported, it is left up to individual employees to determine whether their emails need to be preserved as part of the official record.
Unless an employee affirmatively elects to save an email, the agency will eventually delete it as part of the backup tape recycling process. Surprisingly, even when an employee identifies an email as one that ought to be retained, the only electronic copy is retained on his or her own computer – meaning that should it crash, the record would be destroyed. Emails identified as part of the official record by employees must be printed out and filed, according to IRS procedure. However, the agency has declined to answer questions about that process.
On Tuesday morning, The Fiscal Times first contacted the IRS and asked the agency to respond to lawmakers’ complaints. Despite multiple requests throughout the day, the agency had not responded when this story was posted.
Even House Democrats, who have been consistently on-message with the claim that there is no real evidence of wrongdoing at the IRS, seemed to struggle to mount a defense of the agency’s latest claim. Rep. Sandy Levin, ranking member of Ways and Means, could muster only this defense: “It is unfortunate that the IRS experienced equipment failure that resulted in several computers crashing and some email data being lost from Lois Lerner’s hard drive between 2009 and 2011. But every equipment failure is not a conspiracy.”
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